They returned to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, six days after coming perilously close to being shut out in Seattle and five after executing a change at offensive coordinator that seemed weeks in the making.
Badly in need of a victory against a curious Dolphins team that harbored slim playoff hopes despite winning just once this season on the road, the Vikings did on Sunday what they usually do to such opponents at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Their 41-17 victory was their first of the season over a team with a winning record, though it came over an opponent that had been outscored by 55 points this season. The Vikings set a season high in points by running for 220 yards, in an effort that had players saying afterward that Kevin Stefanski’s game plan returned them to what they do best and coach Mike Zimmer adding that his interim offensive coordinator “knew what I wanted.”
The Vikings’ best offensive output of the season came courtesy of some helpful complementary football: After the Dolphins had scored 17 unanswered points to make it 21-17, Marcus Sherels brought a Matt Haack punt back 69 yards, putting the Vikings on the Miami 22-yard line and setting up a Dan Bailey field goal. The Dolphins’ next four drives all lost yards, with three ending in sacks.
For the day, the Vikings tallied nine sacks, with Anthony Barr posting the first multi-sack game of his career.
Ryan Tannehill threw for only 108 yards for Miami, completing 11 of 24 passes.
“You look at Marcus Sherels’ punt return; we didn’t do anything as an offense,” said Cousins, who threw for 215 yards and had an interception returned for a touchdown for the third time this season. “I walked off the field, undoing my chin strap; I’m ticked off, and we get three points out of it. That’s not our offense. Then, they go for it on fourth-and-11 and our defense gets a sack. It gives us the ball on the -yard line. That’s not our offense. … When you start to play complementary football, certain phases start to look really good, when maybe it’s other people helping you out. So it’s everybody working together, and that’s NFL football.”
But even if the Vikings’ offensive performance fell short of delivering the kind of punch necessary for an all-is-well narrative, it did keep them in line for a shot at another opportunity to prove their mettle.
At 7-6-1, the Vikings remain in control of their playoff destiny, with a road game against Detroit and a home matchup with the Bears all that stand between them and a third trip to the playoffs in four years.
The Bears’ victory over the Green Bay Packers, which gave Chicago its first NFC North title since 2010, means the Vikings’ only path into the playoffs is as a wild card, where any kind of a playoff run would hinge on the road victories they haven’t been able to get against good teams this season. They will have just one more game this season at U.S. Bank Stadium, Dec. 30 vs. a Bears team that might have little to play for and could be resting starters by then.
The Vikings’ decision to fire offensive coordinator John DeFilippo — timed between the team’s third road loss in four weeks to a likely playoff team and a home matchup against Miami’s porous defense — created a favorable runway for Stefanski, who called plays for the first time in the NFL on Sunday.
Stefanski, who joined the Vikings on Brad Childress’ staff in 2006 and has been with the team since, seemed in line for the job after the New York Giants hired Pat Shurmur. The Vikings passed him over for DeFilippo, then blocked him from taking the Giants’ offensive coordinator job.
On the first day of what amounts to a three-game audition for the permanent job, Stefanski won praise from players for a cogent game plan that drew on his experiences with previous staffs.
“He saw what they did well. Maybe what they didn’t do so well. What he’d do when it was his turn,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “You saw that throughout the week with little changes. He didn’t come in and overhaul everything, but there were some things we did a little bit differently this week you could tell Kevin had been waiting for his opportunity to do this. I think he learned a lot of things last year from this offense — what Pat did with this offense that we got back to today and had success with.”
He put Cousins back under center more often, creating what Zimmer said were better fakes on play-action and allowing Dalvin Cook — who gained 136 yards on 19 carries — to hit the line of scrimmage with a full head of steam.
And as the Vikings raced out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead behind 97 rushing yards from Cook and Latavius Murray against the Dolphins’ 29th-ranked run defense, everything appeared aligned to vindicate the move.
After connecting on all seven of his passes in the first quarter for 102 yards and a touchdown, though, Cousins threw a third-and-15 screen for Stefon Diggs that Miami cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick picked off, racing 50 yards for a touchdown after the interception.
A Jason Sanders field goal just before halftime made it 21-10, and on the Dolphins’ first play of the third quarter, Kalen Ballage went 75 yards for a touchdown, beating the Vikings’ overload blitz on a play Zimmer said he shouldn’t have called.
Apart from that run, the Vikings would allow 10 yards the rest of the game.
“When we do have a complete performance, we are really tough to beat,” Rudolph said. “Now it’s about doing it over again next week. We have to play consistent; last year we did it for 10 weeks in a row, and now it’s time for us to get hot.”
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. E-mail: email@example.com